Teri Garr’s career in film and television, which spanned nearly 50 years and includes more than 140 screen credits, is an impressive one. She earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and won the hearts of moviegoers with her warm, playful on-screen presence and vulnerable portrayal of damsels in distress. Best known for her prominent roles in cult classic Young Frankenstein and the critically-acclaimed comedy Tootsie, she began her performing arts career as a dancer.
And showbiz couldn’t be a bigger part of her DNA. As she told The Washington Post in 1983, her father “was a vaudeville comedian” and her “mother was a Rockette at Radio City.” According to Biography, Eddie and Phyllis Garr met while working on a Broadway show together, but sadly, Eddie died when Teri was just 11 years old.
Some time later, Teri’s entrée into a highly successful film and TV career happened. Sadly, after decades as an on-screen fixture, this beloved actor retired from show business in 2011. With so much love and history of performing, and such acclaim and visibility tied to her work, there is a palpable void now that Garr is no longer delighting audiences with new roles. We took a look into her life and career to figure out why this beloved actor disappeared from Hollywood.
The variety show scene considered Teri Garr a fixture
Before her acting career even began, much of Teri Garr’s pop-culture visibility was garnered from frequent appearances on variety shows. In the mid-1960s, she showed off her dancing moves on the musical variety show Shindig! before transitioning into small speaking roles on shows like That Girl and The Andy Griffith Show (IMDb reports some of her early work was under the names Terry Garr and Terri Garr). She also appeared as a dancer in Elvis Presley movies like Viva Las Vegas, Fun in Acapulco, and Kissin’ Cousins.
Being cast as a regular on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the early 1970s was a big win for Garr, and according to IMDb, she popped up in around 50 episodes of the show! Garr appeared on The Hollywood Squares twice in 1975 and came back with a bang when the show was revived just after the turn of the century, appearing 25 times on the Hollywood Squares reboot between 2001 and 2002. She also appeared on Celebrity Jeopardy! in 1993 and 1998.
Sadly, America’s love of variety shows fizzled with the growing popularity of competitive reality shows like Survivor, which premiered in 2000, and American Idol, which premiered in 2002. This new format provided far fewer opportunities for celebrity guest stars on unscripted shows.
Teri Garr aged out of quirky ingénue roles
Hollywood starlets have two main requirements: beauty and sex appeal. Teri Garr brought that and more to the quirky ingénue roles that made her a star. While the actor’s early work consisted mainly of non-speaking bit parts, she reached two major career milestones in 1968. The first was a role in an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, Assignment: Earth, which Garr describes in her 2005 autobiography, Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood, as her “big break.” Her other breakout role that year was her first speaking part in a film, Head, a role Biography reports she received thanks to her acting-class colleague, Jack Nicholson, who wrote the film.
In 1974, Garr was cast in the role that would change her life: Bavarian lab assistant Inga in the Mel Brooks masterpiece Young Frankenstein. Oft-hailed as one of the best comedies ever made, Young Frankenstein cemented Garr as a fixture in pop culture, and her IMDb page reflects that. She soon nabbed roles in a bunch of films, including Steven Spielberg blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Escape Artist, and The Black Stallion. At age 38, she landed a part in Tootsie, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Garr’s Tootsie costar, Jessica Lange, won the Oscar.)
Unfortunately, as HuffPost reports, “few leading roles are written for women over 40…women in their 40s and up are someone’s mom or somebody’s wife in the background.” Garr’s career indeed followed this path.
The next phase of Teri Garr's career was a success, too
Teri Garr undoubtedly has that elusive “it” factor that provides staying power in Hollywood. She Followed Tootsie with box the office smash Mr. Mom, and she reunited with her Close Encounters costar Richard Dreyfuss for Let It Ride. Her post-40 career path indeed followed the typical Hollywood pattern, but the actor was fortunate, and talented, enough to seamlessly transition from being typecast as the quirky ingenue into playing sweet-but-clueless maternal roles.
Garr was regularly cast in film and television into her 40s and 50s, but the roles continued to diminish in profile as she aged. She landed small parts in Dumb and Dumber and Ready to Wear in 1994, also scoring a recurring role in the television series Good Advice that year. In the late 1990s, the actor was cast as a guest star on several TV shows, most notably playing the recurring role of Phoebe Buffay’s (played by Lisa Kudrow) biological mother on Friends. In 1999 and 2000, Garr also voiced a role, an acting niche in which age is of no consequence, in Batman Beyond.
Garr had the goods to transition all the way into fun grandmotherly roles, but her health began to fail, and she was hit with a bombshell in 1999.
A multiple sclerosis diagnosis changed Teri Garr's life
Teri Garr started experiencing strange symptoms in the early 1980s, ABC News reports, starting with a “nervous tick in her foot” and tingling sensation in her arm, but it took her nearly two decades to get a firm diagnosis. Garr told Brain and Life, “Every movie I did, I’d go see a different doctor…and everyone had a different opinion about what it might be.” Finally, in 1999, she received a definitive diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), which the National Multiple Sclerosis Society describes as “an abnormal response of the body’s immune system directed against the central nervous system.”
Garr feared the diagnosis could end her career, so she tried to hide her symptoms. When rumors about her health began circulating, though, Garr took control of the narrative and publicly revealed her diagnosis on CNN‘s Larry King Live in 2002.
“I think some people want you to be upset. Not only am I not upset, but I’m okay,” Garr said in Brain and Life, later adding, “Maybe it has to do with my show-business background. You’re always being told that you’re not right for something, not tall enough, not pretty enough, whatever. I would say, ‘But I’m smart, I’m talented, I’m this, I’m that!’ I’ve always been able to do that, and I do it now with MS.”
Teri Garr was a frequent talk show guest
Teri Garr’s Larry King Live interview was just one of many notable talk show appearances she made. Garr was frequently booked on the late-night talk show circuit to publicize her films, and she developed a rapport with several hosts who invited her back regularly, thanks to her fun personality and quick wit. Garr hosted Saturday Night Live in 1980, 1983, and 1985, and according to her IMDb page, she appeared on a whopping 42 episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But Garr’s most famous late-night relationship was with David Letterman.
Salon lists Garr near the top of the list of Letterman’s “guest crushes.” Before one of her appearances, he said, “I’m in love with this woman, I’d marry this woman in a second if she’d have me.” Regarding Letterman moving to CBS after NBC’s passed him over for The Tonight Show, Garr told CBS This Morning, “He’s a very talented and smart guy, and he works his butt off…he has the guts to stand up for himself.” Garr appeared on Late Night with David Letterman on NBC 30 times and subsequently appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS five times.
During her final Letterman appearance in 2008, Garr joked that she likes to call her MS “MFMS.” She seems to have never lost her sense of humor.
After a brain aneurysm, Teri Garr had to learn to walk again
Teri Garr was in a week-long, medically-induced coma in 2006 while recovering from a brain aneurysm. Surgery fixed the aneurysm, but she needed therapy to regain her motor skills and speech. Even in the thick of recovery, her rep told People, “her humor seems to be intact.”
In true Garr fashion, she didn’t let a little thing like complete (albeit temporary) immobility stop her from working in Hollywood. Following rehabilitation from the aneurysm, she continued acting, even reuniting with her Friends daughter, Lisa Kudrow, in the 2007 film Kabluey. And as Variety reported, her 2007 flick Expired was selected for both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals.
During her final appearance on his show, Garr told David Letterman, “I had to learn to walk again and talk again and think again. I’m still working on that, although I’m not sure it’s that important in Hollywood.” She also joked to her longtime buddy, “I appreciate life every minute and I count my blessings. In fact, it turns out I have so many blessings that I have a woman come in twice a week and count them for me.”
TMZ reported that Garr suffered a “medical emergency” that might have been a stroke in December 2019, but her reps shot that down when talking to People, clarifying Garr had actually been admitted to the hospital for dehydration.
Family is everything to Teri Garr
Teri Garr told Reader’s Digest (via The Life & Times of Hollywood) that her mother was her “role model” growing up. She continued, “Someone who takes care of things, copes. So, I was conditioned to do that.” That model has helped Garr remain optimistic throughout her health struggles. Garr said her mom would wear a pin that read “EGBOK” when she was working long hours to support their family. And that acronym was short for “Everything’s going to be OK.”
In turn, Garr is now a role model to her own daughter, Molly O’Neil. Garr and her first husband, John O’Neil, to whom she was married from 1993 until 1996, adopted Molly in November 1993. Molly has been by her mother’s side during many of her public appearances, and she was the one who found Garr unresponsive at home following her 2006 brain aneurysm. Garr told Closer Weekly in 2015, “[Molly] is a great example of what inspires me and what I live for. She is always there when I need her.”
The Closer Weekly interview also revealed another permanent fixture in the Garr household: Rosa Diaz, who is the actor’s aide. She started with the family as Molly’s nanny and says she loves working with Garr, who, Diaz discloses, is “nonstop” every day, always wanting to get out into the world.
Teri Garr's multiple sclerosis symptoms interfered with her career
One of the toughest adjustments Teri Garr had was reducing her stress level and being less active, but she realizes this is a requirement. “I call [MS] the scum sucking pig of a disease that treats everyone differently,” she told CNN. “Some people don’t get any symptoms, but I wasn’t one of them.” The actor unfortunately developed debilitating symptoms that have dramatically altered her life. Garr suffers from immense fatigue, lack of coordination, and motor skill difficulty. In a 2009 interview with Everyday Health, she revealed, “I had weakness on the right side — arm, leg, and foot. Having to manage fatigue is something I and many people with MS have to deal with, and heat is no friend to my MS either.” While Garr can sometimes use a cane to get around, she often uses a wheelchair.
She told Everyday Health that riding a recumbent bicycle and swimming help keep her strong and mobile, and a determined Garr insists MS patients “work around our symptoms and move forward with our lives.” Alas, Garr ultimately retired from acting in 2011. She continues to work, earning money as a paid ambassador for MS organizations and treatments. She also seems to have planned well financially. Celebrity Net Worth reports she has a net worth of $4 million.
Garr might have left Hollywood, but she is still very much Hollywood-adjacent with her elevated profile, which she uses to help raise awareness of MS.
Multiple MS organizations have Teri Garr in their corner
Once Teri Garr revealed her MS diagnosis, she took on a series of public roles advocating for treatment and awareness of the disease. As noted by The Washington Post, she acted as “chair of the National MS Society’s Women Against MS program and a spokeswoman for Rebif, a disease-modifying drug for treating MS.” And according to ABC News, she became “a paid ambassador for MS Lifelines, a patient service program dedicated to assist persons living with MS and their caregivers.”
She told CNN‘s Larry King, “I think everybody is scared and frightened when they hear something like [an MS diagnosis].” As for her words of wisdom to newly-diagnosed patients? “Relax,” she once said in a press release obtained by Windy City Times. “MS affects everyone differently. The status of MS research has never been more exciting and there are many therapies available that slow the progression of the disease. As we all know, knowledge is power. Get involved on a local level. Become a volunteer, be an advocate, join one of the many Walk MS or Bike MS events in your area. Bring your friends and family with you. It’s a good way to connect with people and you’ll feel better about not only helping yourself but helping others.”
Garr told ABC News, “If you have MS, the important thing to know is that life will go on.”
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